A Head of Lettuce from 1,000 Miles Away, or a Sack of Greens from the Vertical Urban Farm Across Town?
January 2, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
In a perfect world of competitive business, twenty-first century startups have some high hurdles to overcome: the ideal is to offer a product that is beneficial for the consumer, leaves a negligible carbon footprint, has a sustainable operating model and contributes socially and economically to the community at large.
FarmedHere might be the poster boy for such a business.
The two-year-old startup grows salad greens, herbs and fish in a multi-stack, vertical agriculture setup, using aquaponic and aeroponic cultivation methods in an abandoned industrial warehouse about seven miles from downtown Chicago.
Their herbs and microgreens are USDA Organic Certified and, in fact, FarmedHere is the first and only USDA Organic Certified aquaponic indoor operation in the country.
In two short years, they’ve managed not only to become a profitably running business, but also to deliver their harvests within 24 hours to local retailers and restaurants, sell to some of the biggest organic retail centers in the country (Whole Foods) and have partnered with civic organizations to provide job training to inner-city youth who eventually come to staff their facilities.
“Our goal is to provide absolutely fresh, organic produce year-round to our local community, with the most sustainable modern practices,” FarmedHere CEO Jolanta Hardej said. “Indoor vertical farming lets us grow year-round, with three times the number of harvests you get from conventional growing. And there are no pesticides, no fertilizers, no water runoff and no weather disaster losses, like with drought. And we’re using urban property that was otherwise useless.”
FarmedHere was not a natural transition for Hardej. She said the only gardening she knew anything about was her grandmother’s backyard plot in Poland. Hardej’s background was in finance. But then came the crash of 2008 and a bleak new landscape of commerce.
Some internet research and an abiding concern about climate change introduced her to the concept of urban vertical farming. Fortunately, her years in mortgage brokerage gave her access to some progressive-minded investors, and the success of an experimental, small-scale facility convinced Hardej that the market was ripe to develop a major operation in a 90,000 square-foot, Bedford Park post-industrial warehouse.
“We liked the idea of vertical farming, but we also wanted to make this a really sustainable business model,” Hardej said. “So we hire local people. We sell to local vendors. We do our own packaging here. We don’t use outside distributors because we have full quality control when we make deliveries ourselves. And people around here are really responding. Part of this food revolution means educating vendors, consumers and trade partners.”
FarmedHere is serious about making all aspects of their operation ecologically friendly. Their packaging setup only works with green printers (as reported by the Printing Industry of America) who use soy-based inks. Their proprietary green paper packaging uses 90 percent less plastic compared to the traditional clamshell boxes you find in supermarkets.
They use aquaculture (raising fish – in this case, tilapia) to create nutrient-rich water for their aquaponic system, in a symbiotic cultivation of animal (sold to Whole Foods as organically farmed fish) and plant life. The tilapia is raised antibiotic- and hormone-free, so there is virtually no chemical discharge in their aquaponic system.
“With aeroponic culture, you just spray the roots, so there is no water waste,” Hardej said. “It also makes the produce itself healthier. We had our basil tested in labs and it was more nutritious than soil-grown basil.”
Aquaponics also enables the company to grow crops faster. Arugula reaches harvest in 16 days, compared to the conventional 45 days, and basil is ready to pick in 25 days, compared to a standard 60 days. All free of bugs or chemical fertilizers.
FarmedHere’s product line includes arugula, basil, microgreens, chives, mustards and kale (along with the tilapia), but they are looking to branch into tomatoes and other produce. They ship daily to retailers, farmers markets and large chains like Whole Foods Market.
Hardej is particularly pleased with their partnership with Windy City Harvest – a program developed by the Chicago Botanic Garden. FarmedHere donated one of their aquaponic systems to Windy City Harvest and they use it to train underserved youth in the city. A dozen or so teens graduated from the program and are now employed at FarmedHere.
“They’re great,” Hardej exclaimed. “We are starting to organize educational field trips here so school kids can see that they can grow their own harvests aquaponically. I’m hoping local schools will add this type of science to their curriculums.”
Even with challenges like finding a trained work force, Hardej sees an unabashedly “huge,” profitable future for FarmedHere and is already looking for more industrial warehouses. They now market a bottled basil vinaigrette and are experimenting with other product lines.
“But our success also depends on our collaboration with our community,” Hardej stressed. “The village of Bedford Park has been wonderfully supportive. And what would you rather buy? A head of lettuce that came from 1,000 miles away or a sack of greens that came from across town?”